With all the recent buzz about The Cabin in the Woods, I decided that I would pick another meta qualified horror movie for my Netflix instant recommendation this week.Grave Encounters’ school of meta plays with two different horror conventions that are all the rage right now. Firstly, it sets itself up as a ghost hunting television show, an entertainment phenomena that has even spread to the Animal Channel. Secondly, it is shot within the confines of the found footage genre. Both of these conventions are tired and have been done badly way more often than they have been done well. Luckily, the makers of Grave Encounters, the duo that goes by The Vicious Brothers, realized this and successfully explored both formats pretty darn well.
The movie begins with the obligatory introduction of the “actual found footage” of a television crew that is producing a television show, Grave Encounters: a show that is more than a little similar to Ghost Hunters, Paranormal State and their ilk. We follow them as they survey the mental institution that will be the site of their latest episode. They interview historians, caretakers, and eyewitnesses, some bribed to tell their stories. This sequence is possibly the strongest point of the movie. It plays like a parody of the television shows we’ve all seen, all while setting up everything that will come later. From the psychic to the caretaker we see how these investigations are less investigatory and more of a set up for a staged show.
Being what it is, though, this movie eventually takes the turn to the actual scary and not the staged variant. What is impressive is the time the movie takes to set up the creepy environment that is a mental asylum. When you have an innately scary atmosphere you probably need to take your time and let it seep in, and the directors of Grave Encounters let the characters and, by extension, the audience explore. This asylum would be scary without any actual haunting. An abandoned institution built with the intent of keeping crazy people locked up is scary. An abandoned institution built with the intent of keeping crazy people locked up in the dark is even scarier. Throw in some unseen noises and movement and you get the mid-point of this movie. It really is successful in building tension and an eery sense of dread.
The point that this movie slightly falls apart is when the hauntings rise to the level of CGI silliness. Horror films never thrive when they show too much of the threat that should be hiding in the dark. This fact is tripled when it comes to CGI. You lose all sense of real tension when the monsters are obviously products of a hard drive. Even the CGI is a small complaint though. As a total product, Grave Encounters works surprisingly well. Surprisingly, because barely anyone spoke of this thing. It is noticeably better than many horror movies that get large studio support and a wide theatrical release.
All in all, Grave Encounters succeeds in avoiding the pitfalls of the found footage cliches and playing with the innate silliness of ghost hunting shows, while also providing proof of why they continue to be so popular. Turn the lights off, make sure you turn up the surround sound, and enjoy the atmosphere. The eventual haunted ride this movie provides is well worth it.